“One game short.”
That’s the way West Liberty Boys Soccer Coach Walton Ponce described the Comet’s outcome in the Class 1A State Tournament after losing 2-1 to Western Christian of Hull at the Crownie Soccer Complex in Des Moines.
After finishing fourth two years ago, the Comets wanted to get at least one step closer this season and into the championship match with Burlington Notre Dame, a 4-1 winner over Western Christian on Saturday.
The Comets had strong hopes after taking a 1-0 lead in the first half when junior Jahsiah Galvan punched in the only West Liberty goal of the game off a Josh Mateo corner kick with just 5:30 left.
But the lead wouldn’t hold as the Wolfpack connected on a pair of penalty kicks at 20:39 and 7:40 in the second half while junior goalie Ty Van Essen prevented the Comets from scoring time and time again, including knocking away a penalty kick late in the game.
“It was nice to get as far as we did, but obviously our objective was to play in the state final,” Ponce said.
The coach said his team was “all in mentally and physically” and said, “losing the way we did was so disheartening. It definitely hurt for them. This was their last chance at getting a state title (for the seniors) and the moment was a lot for them.”
Ponce said his team was inconsistent and “we suffered a lot,” not getting the ball for long periods of time as hoped. “It made for a back and forth game, which was not to our advantage,” Ponce said. “Our boys played hard but we needed to have the ball more and be more effective in our attack.”
The coach said he didn’t change the team’s strategy at halftime, noting everything was working well until the Wolfpack’s first penalty kick got by Comet sophomore goalie Ruben Meraz.
“We wanted one more goal to put the game out of reach,” Ponce said of the second half effort. He said his team was a “bit sloppy” early in the game and said, “With a little more composure in the attack, we would have gotten clearer opportunities.”
The coach was especially upset after Western Christian’s second goal, siting the referee for making a “huge technical mistake,” initiating a ceremonial free kick.
“When that occurs, a whistle must be blown to restart play….which never happened,” Ponce said. “Besides that, the player that ended up scoring was three steps offside.”
The coach said the evidence of that error was posted on the Western Christian boys soccer twitter page, the video proving the error from the referee as well as the assistant referee that didn’t signal the offside.
“The play shouldn’t have even happened due the whistle never being blown, but even if it were to happen, the offside is so clear as well,” Ponce said. “Horrible and soft PK call and then completely terrible mistake from a referee crew to let something like that happen in the second goal at this level.”
Ponce said the Wolfpack never did actually score on the course of play, getting gifts from the referee team and said his team deserved to be among the top two in the state.
He did say the Wolfpack defended well, similar to St. Albert in the opening round 2-1 Comet win. He complimented their midfield play, especially the disruptions by senior Bailey Baccam, who had one of the two goals for the Wolfpack.
Western Christian Coach Sou Buccam called West Liberty a very good team, putting a lot of pressure on his team and noted a bounce off the crossbar for either team could have made a big difference in the outcome of the game, noting both teams had their chances at putting the ball in the net. He said West Liberty was only the second team this season to take a lead on his Wolfpack.
Ponce said the team has a lot to be proud about but said the objective is to continue to get to the championship game and win a first-time state title. “Anything less will be disappointing,” he said.
“Our next season started that day,” Ponce said, losing six talented seniors from the team including Julian Alvarado, Joshua Mateo, Ronald Guzman Lopez, Kevin Martinez, Israel Gomez and David Molina.
“We have to prepare and work hard to keep building our players/program,” Ponce said. “There’s no reason not to get back there as long as we are doing the things that we are doing now at club level every single year.”
The coach said his team played “very well” in the tournament opener against St. Albert of Council Bluffs. “We limited them to about one to two good opportunities all game even though it was a back and forth and very chippy to say the least.”
The coach said It was “unfortunate” the officiating wasn’t good in that game either, keeping the game closer that it should have been.
“Our boys just clawed out that win,” Ponce said of the win over the Falcons. “We had some horrible calls that made the game very broken. We did have the ball, but at the end of the second half, it was all heart what pulled it out for us.”
He complimented Galvan for his hard work in the game, noting, “His efforts created many opportunities for us.” He also praised Josh Mateo for working “very hard defensively in the middle of the field.”
He said he would have liked to have a crack at West Burlington’s top-ranked Notre Dame team, noting, “It would have been a more interesting match up for sure.”
West Burlington beat Iowa City Regina in their semi-final game Thursday, 4-2, after defeating Columbus Catholic in the first round, 4-2. Regina beat Greene County, 3-0, to get into the semi-finals.